The Bluetooth SIG (Special Interest Group) wants to bring a COVID-19 contact tracing system to wearable devices. The group behind the Bluetooth standards has announced that they are working on a new specification that will enable the potentially lifesaving feature on wearables.
Google and Apple's Bluetooth-based cross-platform Exposure Notification System (ENS) for COVID-19 contact tracing is currently limited to smartphones. It uses a new subset of the Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) specification to enable the feature. The system notifies the user if a person they have come in close contact with in the past is later diagnosed with COVID-19.
However, the Bluetooth SIG believes "smartphones alone are not a practical approach" for everyone. They agree that smartphones are an "ideal foundation" for launching an ENS because of their wide adoption. But there still are "several population groups critical to managing the spread of diseases like COVID-19 with relatively low smartphone penetration."
Children and elderly people might also prefer a tiny gadget on their wrist over a bulky phone in their pockets. By extending an ENS to wearable devices, the Bluetooth SIG is looking to cover all segments of the population with the COVID-19 contact tracing system.
"We believe including wearable devices in an ENS would be a very effective method for extending its reach to support these important groups," said Elisa Resconi, a physics professor at the Technical University of Munich.
Bluetooth SIG begins work on COVID-19 contact tracing for wearables
The Bluetooth SIG has formed a new Exposure Notification Working Group (ENWG) to work on COVID-19 contact tracing for wearables. The new group of 130 Bluetooth member companies will define a standardized method for adding ENS support for wearable devices. They promise to preserve the same privacy and security protections of the existing solution for smartphones.
The system on wearables will work much like the smartphone implementation. A Bluetooth-enabled wearable will continuously broadcast and exchange unique random IDs with other nearby devices. The device will then periodically retrieve the list of IDs associated with positive COVID-19 cases.
If the ENS app discovers any matches with IDs received from nearby devices, it'll notify the user with further instructions. As you'd expect, devices without on-board connectivity will need to periodically connect to a device with internet access.
However, it might still be a long time before a viable COVID-19 contact tracing solution for wearables arrives. The Bluetooth SIG expects an initial draft of the specification to be available for review "within the next few months."
The ENWG will be open to all Bluetooth SIG member companies, though. It'll serve as a centralized forum for discussion on the effective use of Bluetooth technology against the novel coronavirus.
"We are grateful for the dedication and commitment of the Bluetooth members," said Mark Powell, CEO of the Bluetooth SIG. "It is incredibly inspiring to see the Bluetooth community’s collaboration in finding and creating innovative ways to leverage Bluetooth technology to address the COVID-19 pandemic. We are proud of their work on this important effort."